Back in 1984, Stephen Morris wrote a travel book — Amazon (The Stephen Greene Press) — that’s funny and conversational in tone, with just the right amounts of statistics and historical context to feed the mind without weighing it down. The topic? Beer. Or more specifically, as the subtitle denotes, “A Guide to the Highlights and Lowlites of American Beer Drinking.”
He took his journey, roughly from Boston to Yakima, Washington, with his pregnant wife and dog (Guinness) in a Chevy van. It’s a rather regimented journey that takes him throughout New England, down to the “wastelands” (his word) of the Southeast, though the Midwest, down to Southern California and up the coast to the Pacific Northwest. Morris, with whimsical illustrations by Vance Smith, meets brewers, brewery owners, and die-hard drinkers to create a snapshot of the macro- and micro-brewery scene was like in the late 70s to early 80s.
What a world away it seems from today, where you can’t drive a 100 miles before hitting a few breweries along the way. In the world of the original Great Beer Trek (there’s a revised version from 1990 that I have not read), you get the feeling of despair throughout: the best days of America are behind them here, with nothing but rotting or stumbling hulks of breweries to remind us of glory days past. The independent breweries that do exist are under darkening clouds of purchase from breweries like Anheuser-Bucsh, Stroh, Schlitz, and Heileman. The book reminds me of Blue Highways by William Least-Heat Moon (1982), in that it’s about trying to rediscover an America that seems to be fading into some sort of collective imagination.
Morris peppers his story with little profiles of important figures in American beer history: F.X. Matt II, Rudolph Schaefer Jr., and even revered beer writer Will Anderson. He does his best to get past the supposed grandeur of Big Beer, and is even sympathetic of the large breweries that were taking over the landscape.
While in Wisconsin, Morris chats with Bill Leinenkugel, who invites the author to take part in a taste test. Morris noted Leinenkugel’s “competitive curiosity” about the other beers that Morris had tasted on his journey. He wanted to know how they tasted in comparison to his. “There are too few independent brewers to anyone to wish anyone else ill,” Morris writes. “None of the small brewer’s beers are sold in the other’s market, so there is no real competition. Within a context of mutual support, however, each one wants to be the best. Man has an innate need to strive for excellence, and the need finds its finest opportunity for expression in the field of brewing.”
I came across the book at a tag sale, and it caught my eye because I wished I’d read or even heard about it months ago when I was putting together my own book about Connecticut beer. I would have used some of Morris’ observations about Hull’s Brewing in New Haven, which had just become defunct when he was writing the book. He expresses a sense of responsibility for the demise of the beer that he made jokes about while growing up and drinking it. “No need to search deeply for the cause of Hull’s ignominious demise,” Morris writes. “I murdered Hull. Who scorned the local beer in favor of the more prestigious national brands and imports. Who made jokes about Hull’s ‘Export Piss?’ Who assumed there would always be a local beer associated with old school days?”
I certainly recommend tracking this book down if you’re interested in the history of American beer, or if you just want to be taken for a fun ride in a Chevy van with a dog named Guinness.